The Writer’s Almanac for July 24, 2018

“Amazing Grace” by John Newton. Public Domain. (buy now)

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace those fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.


It’s the birthday of English poet and novelist Robert Graves (books by this author), born in Wimbledon in 1895. He was one of 10 children; his father, Alfred Perceval Graves, was a Celtic scholar and his mother, Amalie, was related to noted historian Leopold von Ranke. He began writing poetry as a schoolboy, and wrote three books of verse while serving as an officer on the Western Front during World War I. He was badly wounded in 1916 and again in 1918, and he battled the physical and psychological effects of the Great War for several years to come. Good-Bye to All That (1929) is his grim memoir of the war years, and it sold well enough that he was able to settle on the island of Majorca with his lover, American poet Laura Riding.

He wrote more than 120 books, including historical fiction like I, Claudius (1934), about the Roman Empire; and The Golden Fleece (1944), about Hercules. His research of mythology for The Golden Fleece led him to write a controversial book, The White Goddess; A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948). In it, he argues for throwing off the old patriarchal gods and relying on a divine female deity for inspiration. He believed the White Goddess inspired poetry that was magical, rather than the rational, classical verse that arose from meditating on a male god.

He wrote in his essay “A Case for Xanthippe” (1960): “Though philosophers like to define poetry as irrational fancy, for us it is practical, humorous, reasonable way of being ourselves. Of never acquiescing in a fraud; of never accepting the secondary-rate in poetry, painting, music, love, friends. Of safeguarding our poetic institutions against the encroachments of mechanized, insensate, inhumane, abstract rationality.”


Today is the birthday of American aviator Amelia Earhart (1897), born in Atchison, Kansas. She was a tomboy as a child, and she didn’t like being told what she couldn’t do because of her gender. She kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about women who had made a go of it in male-dominated fields. She saw her first airplane at a county fair when she was 10. “It was a thing of rusty wire and wood and not at all interesting,” she said. But 10 years later, she went to a stunt-flying exhibition, and when the pilot dove toward the crowd attempting to scare them, Amelia stood her ground. “I did not understand it at the time,” she said, “but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by.”

When she grew up, she served as a nurse’s aide during World War I, then went to college, and began working as a social worker. She had her first flying lesson in 1921, began saving her money, and bought her own plane six months later. She was dubbed “Lady Lindy,” after Charles Lindbergh, and was a popular lecturer. She was featured in ads for Modernaire luggage and Lucky Strike cigarettes. She also inspired a new subset of women’s fashions: “active wear.” She amassed a long résumé of firsts in her career: first woman pilot to fly at 14,000 feet; first woman to fly (as passenger) across the Atlantic; first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic; first pilot to fly solo across the Pacific; first pilot to fly solo from Mexico City to Newark; first woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross. In her quest to be the first person to fly around the world, she disappeared over the Pacific, somewhere near the International Date Line.


It’s the birthday of writer and socialite Zelda Fitzgerald (books by this author), born Zelda Sayre in Montgomery, Alabama (1900). She was named after the fictional gypsy heroine in Zelda’s Fortune (1874), one of her mother’s favorite books. She was the youngest of five children, and she rebelled against the strict discipline of her father, an Alabama Supreme Court judge. She snuck out of her window at night, smoked cigarettes, bobbed her hair, and wore a flesh-colored swimsuit so that people would think she was swimming nude. She spent her evenings at dances and parties with the officers stationed at nearby Camp Sheridan, and they competed for her attention. One officer performed the full manual of arms drill outside her door, and others took turns trying to outdo each other with fancy airplane stunts in the sky above the Sayre household.

It was at Camp Sheridan that Zelda met a young officer named Scott Fitzgerald. He was beautiful, like Zelda — they were both petite, with blond hair and light eyes. Years later, in her autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz (1932), she wrote: “He smelled like new goods. Being close to him with her face in the space between his ear and his stiff army collar was like being initiated into the subterranean reserves of a fine fabric store exuding the delicacy of cambrics and linen and luxury bound in bales.” Scott and Zelda spent a lot of time together, but she didn’t want to commit to him; even though he was confident that he was going to be rich and famous, Zelda was hesitant, and her parents were unconvinced. She wrote to him: “Mamma knows that we are going to be married some day — But she keeps leaving stories of young authors, turned out on a dark and stormy night, on my pillow — I wonder if you hadn’t better write to my Daddy — just before I leave — I wish I were detached — sorter without relatives. I’m not exactly scared of ’em, but they could be so unpleasant about what I’m going to do.”

After the publication of Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), Zelda agreed to marry Scott. They became the most famous couple of the Jazz Age. They were the center of attention at parties, where their drunken exploits became the stuff of legend.

Zelda was a writer in her own right, and Scott borrowed from her ideas and sometimes copied writing from her verbatim. When they were dating in Montgomery, Zelda showed Scott her diary, and he used that and her letters in This Side of Paradise. He had modeled the main character, Rosalind, after a woman he had been in love with at Princeton, named Ginevra King; but after meeting Zelda, he reworked the character of Rosalind until she was a combination of both women.

When Zelda was hired to write a review of The Beautiful and Damned for the New York Herald Tribune, she wrote: “It seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald — I believe that is how he spells his name — seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.” She also encouraged readers to buy the book so that Scott could buy her a new dress and a platinum ring.

She said, “I don’t want to live — I want to love first, and live incidentally.”


It’s the birthday of Anglican clergyman and hymn writer John Newton (books by this author), born in London (1725). His father was a ship’s captain, and his pious mother died when he was seven years old, so he accompanied his father to sea. He once tried to desert the Royal Navy, and was publicly flogged and demoted. Later, another ship traded him as cargo, and he became the servant of an African slave dealer. He ended up a captain and carried slaves between Europe, the sugar plantations of the West Indies, and Africa’s slave coast.

In 1748, he had a spiritual conversion on a journey back to England. He almost drowned in a terrible storm, but he prayed to God, and the ship did not sink. After that, he stopped gambling and drinking, and he married a girl he had loved for many years.

Newton was ordained as a minister. He gave up the slave trade entirely, and later in his life he became an outspoken abolitionist. In his best-selling pamphlet Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade (1788), he described the awful conditions of the slave ships he had captained. By this time, Newton was a well-known preacher and writer of hymns, and the public listened to him. In 1805, the 80-year-old Newton went completely blind, but he didn’t stop working. The slave trade was abolished in the British Empire in March of 1807; Newton died that December.

He is best remembered for his hymns, which include “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” and “Amazing Grace,” the poem selection for today.

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Old man cautions against faith in probability

I flew back to Minneapolis for the mid-April snowstorm, as a true Minnesotan would do. Eight inches of snow instead of palms for Palm Sunday, God speaking to us: not to be missed. What caused it, of course, was over-enthusiasm at a 70-degree day, people setting out petunias, putting away snow shovels.

Do not assume. This was drilled into us as little kiddoes. At Anoka High School in 1958, we had a great basketball team headed for State and in the first round of district tournaments it got beaten by a gaggle of farmboys from tiny St. Francis. Unlikelihood lends disaster a sort of inevitability: thus, as I board a plane, I think, “This is the end of my life. Goodbye, my darlings.” This acceptance of disaster is what keeps the plane aloft.

Other people imagine that if they exercise regularly and eat more fiber, they’ll live to be 98. I don’t. I believe that an exemplary healthful lifestyle makes it more likely I’ll be struck by a marble plinth falling off a building as I walk to the health club. I’m not even sure what a plinth is but it’s likely that one will kill me.

My grandma used to sing me to sleep with a song about two little children lost in a blizzard — “they sobbed and they sighed and they bitterly cried, and the poor little things, they lay down and died” — which is nothing Mister Rogers ever sang, but Grandma saw no reason to hide harsh reality from us. She did not tell us to look the other way when she chopped the head off a chicken. Death was a part of our lives. How many children today have observed a beloved relative swing an axe and decapitate a bird? Not many.

My fellow Democrats have been assuming for two years that our corrupt King would be brought to his knees by a keen investigator — and they are now sadly disappointed and wandering in confusion. Everyone knows he is corrupt — he himself boasted about it — he grew up admiring men who shrewdly worked the system to their own benefit, cutting corners left and right, stiffing the little guys, paying off the big honkers. Public service was never his thing, not then, not now.

Democrats are horrified by the King, of course, as most people are. He is compulsively cruel, resolute in his ignorance, proudly illiterate, and on the one occasion he was seen in church, he did not bother to recite the Nicene Creed, unlike the four ex-presidents in the church with him. He doesn’t believe in a Holy Trinity but rather a Fearsome Foursome, Himself included.

So Democrats have launched a couple dozen campaigns against him. Every Democrat with better than 5 percent name recognition is out on the trail speaking to crowds of librarians, yoga instructors, poets, birdwatchers, and organic farmers and talking about climate change, health care, and the need for civility in public life. Next spring, Democrats will nominate a beautiful person in a white robe and sandals who holds out his or her arms and birds come and perch on them.

We assume that this wonderful person will win. That is what should happen, just as we ought to have daffodils blooming in April. As a Minnesotan, I see danger in the act of leaping to logical assumptions.

I awake sometimes in the middle of the night, seeing the headline KING COASTS TO 2ND TERM. Political scientists are astonished — and historians. But bikers, Baptists, and lovers of horror novels are not. The King is a living parable, a bad dream become real. We are not an enlightened people. It is 1856 all over again, except now with social media. Nobody wants to hear this. When I say these things to my fellow Democrats, they excuse themselves and go to the kitchen and brew a pot of chamomile tea with touches of rosemary and warm up a plate of artisanal corn muffins.

They have contempt for the King, his bad grammar, his cruel stare, his love of the garish, his pettiness, his devotion to his hair, and their contempt will lead them to nominate a holy progressive who will have his or her lunch eaten. This is a Minnesotan’s view. I am looking out the window at snowy fields as I write.

Having said that, I am going for a walk. I’ll stick close to the curb, to avoid any falling plinths. Have a good day.

So much can happen in an ordinary afternoon

I have been struggling this week, looking deep within myself, questioning my own values, asking myself: should I go public with the incident in 2009 when Michelle Obama put her arm around me at a luncheon in Washington? She was posing for photographs with the attendees and I had been the guest speaker and I was told to stand next to her and I did and she put her left arm around my back and pulled me toward her and squeezed. It was a perceptible squeeze. I didn’t say anything at the time but I remember feeling that this was her idea, not mine, that I probably would’ve preferred to shake her hand, but what are you going to say to the First Lady? “Get your arm off me”?

She didn’t place her forehead against mine or kiss the back of my head, nothing like that, but the squeeze was unmistakable and intimated familiarity.

I don’t come from a huggy family. My wife does. I don’t. In my family, a pat on the back is considered sufficient, but when my wife walks into a room full of Keillors, she goes from one to another, throwing her arms out and clutching them to her, and they have to stand there and accept it or else look like soreheads.

People like us — white, Anglo, Midwestern, formal, reluctant to make eye contact, uptight, stiff, boring — are ridiculed, by comedians of color and also colorless comedians, and we have learned not to object. “Where’s your sense of humor?” people would say, so we laugh at the stereotype even though we don’t find it funny.

I don’t go around smiling. It doesn’t mean I’m unhappy; it’s simply the culture I was born in. The photographs of my ancestors that we kept on the piano showed solemn bearded men and severe women and their gloomy children, no incisors visible whatsoever. My dad and uncles didn’t smile a lot. They associated smileyness with salesmen trying to charm you into buying a ten-year-old Dodge with a loose clutch and rust around the bumpers. I went off to college and, in order to be hip, read existential writers about the indifference of the universe to human suffering, while chain-smoking Luckies and drinking espresso, which tends to solemnize a person as well.

On account of my seriousness, people are always asking, “What’s wrong? Is something the matter?” I call this demeanorism, judging people by their facial expression. Inside, I’m pretty lighthearted but on the outside, I look as if I’ve been struck by a baseball bat and am trying to remember my name.

The squeeze that I experienced was ten years ago and I’m not saying it was traumatic but I do wish she would take ownership of it and express some regret at having ignored my feelings, and then I have a sudden sensation in my rear end, a suspicious flatness, and I reach back and there is no wallet there, and suddenly I’m up and running from room to room, checking pockets, looking under tables, calling up cafes I’ve patronized the past couple days.

This is the bright red wallet my wife bought me after I left a black wallet on the seat of a taxicab late one night and it occurs to me that this wallet loss, coming a month after the previous, may be what convinces her I need help. Tomorrow there’ll be a power-of-attorney form to sign and consultation with a series of people in white uniforms who take notes as I’m put through a battery of tests involving matching shapes on little wooden cubes, and my wife, who loves me dearly, will break the news gently. There is a care center that specializes in elderly men with cognitive issues. It’s called Sunnyvale and it has a triple-A rating from the AARP and there is shuffleboard and checkers and color TV in every room and a sing-along on Saturday nights where the elderly gather to sing Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones hits.

For a moment, it occurs to me that maybe Michelle Obama reached around me to lift my wallet out of my back pocket.

And then I find it. It’s in the freezer. I set it down when I was getting out the frozen waffles this morning.

Ignore whatever I was saying before. I am okay. Wallet, cellphone, house keys. This is all a man needs. Wallet, cellphone, house keys. It’s spring. We’re going to be okay.

The old man manages a Manhattan Lenten meditation

In church on Sunday, we sang a hymn unfamiliar to me in which we asked the Lord to deliver us from “love of pleasure,” which, as I sang it, I realized I have no intention of giving up. None. Okay, it’s Lent but I was raised fundamentalist and it took me a long time to enjoy pleasure, let alone love it. This was on the windy wintry northern plains where, frankly, Lent seems redundant.

This church is in Manhattan where temptations to pleasure line Amsterdam Avenue and I walk to church while smelling fresh croissants, rich dark coffee from Kenya, Japanese noodles, chrysanthemums, soft cheeses, and much more, most of which God is involved in producing. The hymn seemed to suggest that I sacrifice fresh pumpernickel and espresso for Wonder Bread and Sanka.

In the hymn, we also came out against “heedless word and deed” and, because it rhymes, “ambitions to succeed,” which I’m not giving up either. You give up heedlessness and pretty soon you’d never dare eat a peach or wade in a brook or ask a woman to dance. And ambition is what gets me moving in the morning. I’m 76 and writing a musical called “Dusty & Lefty” and already I’m envisioning the review in the Times — “gorgeous … lyrical … makes ‘Hamilton’ seem like a tabletop appliance that blends milkshakes.”

It’s a cruel hymn. It says, “Teach us to know our faults, O God,” which is fine, but then, for the rhyme, it says, “Train us with thy rod.” This is rhyme without reason. Why not “May we with thy truth be shod” or “Let us bloom as goldenrod”? The Psalmist said, “Thy staff and thy rod, they comfort me” but “Train us with thy rod” has definite sadomasochistic overtones in Manhattan.

The pleasures that I love include walking, riding the train, and sitting at a window seat as the airliner comes in low over the Sound and catches the deck of the carrier LaGuardia and hits the brakes. They include what I’m doing right now, tapping away on a laptop, not sure where this is going. They include monogamy, a good idea that puts the parents in the background. We are the stagehands. We have each other and are not searching for self-fulfillment. That’s for the children. I used to seek self-fulfillment in spirituous beverages and stopped fifteen years ago. It’s a pleasure to not do it anymore.

I enjoy the proximity of my wife who as I write is sitting fifteen feet away and, moments ago, when I stood on the sofa to pull the shade so the sun wouldn’t blind me, jumped up from her Sunday crossword and held me by the hips lest I fall. I’ve always wanted her to do that and never knew how to ask. It felt like we were about to dance the tango. The sun poured in like a spotlight at the Roxy and I waited for the drum roll. I hope she will grab me again and next time hold a red gardenia between her teeth and another behind her ear. I like a grabby woman. She womansplained that she was afraid I’d fall and crack my skull. It was very sweet.

Life is good. I can order a cab and then watch its progress on a map on my phone so I don’t need to stand at the curb, I can go into the drugstore and stroll amidst acres of emollients and salves and lubricants. Back in the day we only had Jergens which softened the skin but today’s products hydrate, rejuvenate, regenerate, perhaps emancipate and elucidate, they contain aloe and collagens and vitamin E from Egypt and seaweed oil and fluorides that promote fluency and efflorescence. I could buy socks with odor-eating chemicals. Paste that makes my teeth brilliant.

Instead, I buy a carton of dandelion tea. We used to consider dandelions an enemy and now it’s a comfort. Progress is made. I can text a photograph of us to our daughter at her school and she texts back, “Awwww. Sweet.” Pharmaceuticals that didn’t exist for my uncles enabled me to reach 76, an age when if I jump up on the couch, the woman I love will grab me. I can give up crankiness for Lent and bad grammar — I will not ask her to lay beside me but to LIE beside me — but I won’t give up heedless pleasure. It has been my ambition for many years.

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April 27, 2019

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Woodstock, NY

April 27, 2019

Garrison Keillor celebrates National Poetry Month with poems & song at a benefit for Performing Arts of Woodstock.

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The Writer’s Almanac for April 21, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for April 21, 2019

It was on this day in 1939 that Billie Holiday recorded the song “Strange Fruit,” which begins, “Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.”

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It was on this day in 1927 that actress Mae West was sentenced to 10 days in prison for her starring role in the play Sex, which she also wrote and directed.

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It’s the birthday of the man who gave his name to CliffsNotes: Clifton Keith Hillegass, born in Rising City, Nebraska, in 1918.

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“Whan than Aprill, with his shoures soote…” According to legend, it was on this day in 1397 that Geoffrey Chaucer recited The Canterbury Tales to the court of Richard II.

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A Prairie Home Companion: April 20, 2013

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Keep Lake Wobegon Weird! This broadcast from Austin, Texas, features musical guests Asleep at the Wheel and the Texas Tornadoes. Plus, updates from P.O.E.M., Dusty & Lefty, and Guy Noir.

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The Writer’s Almanac for April 15, 2019

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It was on this day in 1912 that the RMS Titanic sank. There were 2,228 people on board and only 705 people survived.

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The Writer’s Almanac for April 14, 2019

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The Writer’s Almanac for April 13, 2019

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Writing

Old man cautions against faith in probability

I flew back to Minneapolis for the mid-April snowstorm, as a true Minnesotan would do. Eight inches of snow instead of palms for Palm Sunday, God speaking to us: not to be missed. What caused it, of course, was over-enthusiasm at a 70-degree day, people setting out petunias, putting away snow shovels.

Do not assume. This was drilled into us as little kiddoes. At Anoka High School in 1958, we had a great basketball team headed for State and in the first round of district tournaments it got beaten by a gaggle of farmboys from tiny St. Francis. Unlikelihood lends disaster a sort of inevitability: thus, as I board a plane, I think, “This is the end of my life. Goodbye, my darlings.” This acceptance of disaster is what keeps the plane aloft.

Read More

So much can happen in an ordinary afternoon

I have been struggling this week, looking deep within myself, questioning my own values, asking myself: should I go public with the incident in 2009 when Michelle Obama put her arm around me at a luncheon in Washington? She was posing for photographs with the attendees and I had been the guest speaker and I was told to stand next to her and I did and she put her left arm around my back and pulled me toward her and squeezed. It was a perceptible squeeze. I didn’t say anything at the time but I remember feeling that this was her idea, not mine, that I probably would’ve preferred to shake her hand, but what are you going to say to the First Lady? “Get your arm off me”?

She didn’t place her forehead against mine or kiss the back of my head, nothing like that, but the squeeze was unmistakable and intimated familiarity.

Read More

The old man manages a Manhattan Lenten meditation

In church on Sunday, we sang a hymn unfamiliar to me in which we asked the Lord to deliver us from “love of pleasure,” which, as I sang it, I realized I have no intention of giving up. None. Okay, it’s Lent but I was raised fundamentalist and it took me a long time to enjoy pleasure, let alone love it. This was on the windy wintry northern plains where, frankly, Lent seems redundant.

Read More

So that’s over, and what’s next?

Finally it’s coming to an end, two years of speculation, more than what’s been written about the future of American higher education, the American novel, and the planet Earth combined, thanks to that long angular face with the sharp Puritan nose and the stone jaw, a man famous for his silence, and why is the name pronounced MULL-er and not MYOO-ler like all the Muellers I know — what’s going on here? Why the secrecy?

Read More

It’s coming and will find you in due course

I landed in San Francisco last Wednesday just as the rainy season ended and so the city was fresh and green, the Presidio blooming and the meadow in Golden Gate Park where the man with green suspenders walked with his wife who tossed grapes to the squirrels and they came to a quiet spot that seemed to have been waiting for them — that’s from a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti — and if it weren’t for the fact that I have other plans, I could’ve talked my wife into settling down there. It was downright paradisaical. Everywhere I looked, I saw righteous souls who’d spent their lives as Lutheran farmers in North Dakota and now, in the next life, were riding bikes around town and going to yoga and drinking excellent coffee. A young man on a skateboard stopped to talk to me and I thought of asking him if I could take it for a spin.

Read More

Yes, we have now turned the corner

Last week my wife asked me four separate times if I was depressed about something, which I was not, and now, ever since early Sunday morning, I’ve felt mysteriously happy, and I guess that Daylight Saving Time must be the reason. For us in the flat snowy northern tundra regions, turning our clocks forward is the first step toward spring and how can one not rejoice? We await the day when sidewalks are not treacherous and we can escape our squalid hovels and get out and ambulate, and the day in April or May when we can sit outdoors and eat lunch at a plaza and observe the humanity around us. That is where the good life begins, when we escape from Wi-Fi and meet face to face in bright light in our sneakers and T-shirts.

Read More

I’m only going to say this once

One by one, Democrats are stepping into the arena for the 2020 campaign, and their appeals for donations flutter into my inbox, and I do not envy the young staffers assigned to write importuning letters. To project noble ideals and crisis and chumminess in 250 words is a tough assignment, especially when you know that the first two sentences are all I’ll read.

Read More

Why you didn’t see me at the Oscars

I did not host the Academy Awards on Sunday for which I would like to thank the snowstorm that blew across Minnesota early on Sunday morning, high winds, blowing and drifting snow that began around 1 a.m. and got worse and worse. I was in Fergus Falls the night before and of course wanted to be available in case the Academy decided to book a host at the last minute and we saw the forecast of blizzard conditions to the south and decided to hit the road so we could catch a morning flight to LAX if the call came and my little troupe piled into the van with our tour manager Katharine at the wheel and we headed down I-94 toward Minneapolis at 70 mph with our phones at the ready.

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What do men want? Let me tell you.

Ever since the American Psychological Association came out last fall and said what everyone knows — that men are the problem: our stoicism, the crazy aggressive behaviors, the compulsive competitiveness, the rescuer complex — I’ve been watching the women in white in Congress, the Sisters of Mercy out to save the Republic, and enjoying their leaders, Speaker Pelosi and AOC. They’re fearless, free-spirited and often very funny. When AOC addresses her opponents as “Dude,” you know that change is afoot. The old Congress of time-servers and bootlickers is starting to look more like the freewheeling country we love.

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A few words from a top executive

Now that Executive Time has taken root at the top level of government, I am working more of it into my own busy schedule, leaving the Rectangular Office and holing up in the family quarters for what some might call daydreaming, but who cares what they think? They’re losers. Six hours a day of letting the mind wander freely, forgetting about my obligations, and simply roaming the Internet and picking up bits of information that my staff would probably never clue me in on.

Read More

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